Crispy Duck with Sweet Potato, Chestnut, Date and Olive Tagine

Recipe by Tami Ganeles Weiser; photo by Lila Weiser Yield:  4 servings
Prep Time:  30 minutes Cook Time:  1 hour 30 minutes

Crispy Duck with Sweet Potato, Chestnut, Date and Olive Tagine

This is really two recipes in one: the duck and the tagine. Fear not. Both are straightforward. Let’s break it down for you so you can dive right in.

First let’s talk duck: Many cooks are intimidated by even the notion of cooking duck. It’s not always easy to find. It’s not cheap. You can’t approach it like chicken or turkey. Who wants to get something special and expensive and then not know how to cook it? It’s very true that duck is special. It does take a little skill and know-how. This recipe is a great way to develop both.

Why does making duck need extra know-how? Because the quackers have soooo much more fat under the skin than, let’s say, the cluckers. The layer of fat is what helps to keep those duckies afloat and warm. The fat is nothing to fear. Embrace it. It’s duck schmaltz, or duck lard if you will. That means it tastes great.

When cooking duck, you really need to—and want to—render most of the fat. To melt the fat means cooking it super-low and slow enough or on super-high heat. Duck breasts, so lean under the fat layer, are high-heat lovers and are usually served medium rare, so that they are still deeply tender and juicy. Thighs and legs are usually cooked the low and slow way and are often the basis for the famous French confit, which is slowly braised duck legs cooked and stored in fat. (If you haven’t had duck confit—you eat the meat not the fat—get thyself to a restaurant immediately. It is one of life’s great indulgences).

Duck parts are best when cooked with different methods. When I was a small child (when we cooked pterodactyls, I can hear my kids say) you could only buy a whole duck—and you could only special-order it for special occasions. It was the sort of food that was served at fancy-pantsy catered events. Thankfully, all that silly formality junk-ola is long, long gone. Today duck is sold in parts—and I can find them all the time and in plenty of places including my local grocery store, Whole Foods, and of course at a good butcher shop. (If you like kosher birds, try KOL’s farm-raised, Amish country, certified-organic. No, they don’t pay me or send me food, but their products are really very good; for non-kosher, try D'Artagnan, which offers top-of-the-line products across the board that are widely available).

Second, let’s talk tagine: Tagine is the beloved stew of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia that is slow-cooked in a clay-based pot of the same name with a lovely conical cover that helps circulate the air in a unique way. It typically consists of meat or poultry, vegetables and fruits—and of course, the region’s aromatic spices.

In this recipe, I suggest that if you are using a tagine pot, you cook the veggies first on the stovetop and then finish them in the tagine in a warm oven. You will also be finishing the duck in the oven, and normally it would be finished at a higher temperature, but because the tagine will already be there, don’t raise the heat; just cook the duck for a few minutes longer. Tagine pots can be sensitive to heat—they retain heat impeccably but super-duper hot-enough-to-roast isn’t their strong suit. You can absolutely cook the tagine stew in the tagine pot on the stovetop from start to finish over a heavy-duty heat diffuser plate, and it works best of all—but it can take well over an hour and half and even up to three hours, depending upon your stove and tagine. If you have that time, by all means prepare the tagine stew stovetop, and get ready to be delighted. I have written this recipe for either regular saucepan on the stovetop all the way through for ease, or with a tagine pot that goes in the warm but not scorching oven.

Now, here is what you will be doing in this dish: You’ll be searing the duck and setting it aside. That means that you will start to cook the skin over very high heat (aka searing) and allow it to begin to brown lightly. As you cook the skin, you will allow the fat to melt and fill the bottom of that pan, and in the process you will render some of the copious amounts of duck fat. We are going to use the duck fat as the fat in the tagine, adding flavor and using all of the what the duck has to offer. You bought it, so why not multipurpose the duck? Anyway, back to the recipe: then you remove the partially cooked duck from the pan and refrigerate it, uncovered, skin side up. The refrigeration of the uncovered skin will dry it out even more, so it will crisp even more when you finish cooking the duck.

Meanwhile, you have this lovely duck fat in a pan, ready to be used. And so it shall be, in the sweet potato mixture in a spiced-tagine style. Start by cooking down the onions and aromatics in that duck fat. Add the various vegetables and fruits and mix well.

If you have an authentic tagine pot, place the mixture into it, cover it with that lovely turreted top and place it in the oven or cook it over a simmer on the tagine’s simmering plate (it’s a heavy-duty heat diffuser made for tagines—the ceramic tagine pot can’t go right on the stovetop without it). If you don’t have a tagine pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook it on the stovetop. Let the vegetable and fruit mixture cook.

Now, turn your attention back to the duck. The duck isn’t fully cooked yet. Not at all. Heat the original duck-searing pan until it is screaming hot and carefully add the duck breast, skin side down. You are now really searing the skin and crisping it, so serious heat is great here, but be careful of splattering fat. Once the skin gets crispy, slide that pan into the oven to cook the duck through to your desired degree of doneness.

You will have duck cooked and resting while the sweet potato mixture is ready to plate and serve, all hot and all done at the same time. When you finish, you will have learned about timing and cooking efficiency and you will be, officially, in my book, a smarter, wiser cook. And you have a meal that will rock the socks off anyone!

Ingredients

4 (8- to 9-ounce) duck breasts

1 large onion, peeled and diced (about 1½ cups)  

2-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely grated

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated, any green centers discarded

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Leaves of ½ large bunch cilantro, plus more for garnish, optional

1 cup cooked, shelled chestnuts

½ cup pitted dates, roughly chopped

½ cup pitted prunes, roughly chopped

½ cup Mission figs, stems removed, roughly chopped

2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks (about 1½  cups)

8 fluid ounces (1 cup) Brown Duck Stock, or low-sodium chicken stock

½ to 1 teaspoon orange blossom water, optional

½  cup blanched almonds, toasted, plus more for garnish (see Kitchen Tips)

½  cup sliced pitted Castelvetrano green olives, plus more for garnish

2½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Partially sear the duck and render the fat: Using a heavy, sharp knife, score the skin on each breast, cutting about ¼ inch into the fat layer, in a crosshatch pattern. Position a deep saucepan and a rimmed platter within reach of the stove.
  2. Place the breasts, skin-side down, into a cold cast-iron skillet or heavy, ovenproof pan and set over medium-high heat. Cook for about 4 to 5 minutes and as soon as the duck breasts have released about 2 to 3 tablespoons of fat, carefully scoop it out of the pan with a heat-resistant spoon, tilting the pan as necessary, and pour the fat into the other deep saucepan. You now have a heavy cast-iron pan or heavy ovenproof pan with the duck in it, searing lightly, and a deep saucepan that the duck fat is in (that you will use to make the tagine stew). Set the saucepan containing the duck fat aside.
  3. Continue to cook the duck for another 1 to 2 minutes, until it is a warm, deep blond color. Immediately transfer all of the duck breasts to a prepared platter, skin-side up, and set aside. Remove the skillet in which you cooked the duck from the heat, and reserve it and its contents (you will be reusing it). As soon as the duck is cool enough to touch, refrigerate it on the platter, uncovered.
  4. While the duck is chilling, preheat the oven to 325°F. Whether you are planning on using a tagine pot or not, heat the 2 or 3 tablespoons of the rendered duck fat that is in its saucepan (where you placed it in step 2) over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 35 minutes, until very soft, medium brown in color and caramelized. Add the grated ginger and garlic and cook for 15 seconds.
  5. Add the cinnamon, cilantro, chestnuts, dates, prunes, figs, and sweet potatoes. Add 1 cup of the stock and bring to a gentle boil. Stir, add the orange blossom water, if using, and reduce the heat to a simmer.
  6. If you are using a tagine pot (click here for a picture of tagines), carefully ladle the tagine mixture into it and cover the pot with its conical lid. Place the tagine pot into the warm oven and roast for 45 to 55 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are completely softened.
  7. If you are not using a tagine pot, keep the mixture in the pan on the stovetop, cover, and cook for 30 to 35 minutes over medium-low heat, or until the sweet potatoes are softened. Increase the oven temperature to 400°F.  
  8. Ten minutes before the tagine mixture is done (whether it is cooked in the tagine pot in the oven or in the regular pot on the stovetop), remove the duck from the refrigerator and sprinkle both sides with the 1½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper.
  9. Heat the original skillet (that you cooked the duck in) over high heat until it is screaming hot. If the skillet has a lid, have it ready; if not, prepare a piece of aluminum foil big enough to cover the pan. Then, very carefully, using long tongs, place the cold duck, skin side down, into the hot skillet, and sear the skin for 4 to 6 minutes until it is dark, deep brown in color and more fat has rendered. Cover the pan with the lid or foil and carefully transfer to the oven.
  10. If you are not using a tagine pot for the tagine stew, the temperature of the oven is now at 400°F, so roast the duck in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until rare to medium-rare. If you are using the tagine pot it will still be in the oven and the oven will be at 350°F, so to roast the duck rare to medium-rare, roast it for between 8 to 10 minutes.
  11. Carefully remove the duck pan from the oven with oven mitts  (Note: the duck will continue to cook once you take it out for a few minutes, rising another 2° to 5°).
  12. If the skin has softened more than you wish, and you want it super-crisped, you can carefully put the hot pan, again with oven mitts, back on the stovetop over high heat, skin side down for another 1 to 2 minutes, but be careful not to let it burn or overcook the meat on the skin side.
  13. Transfer the duck from the skillet to a clean platter (see Kitchen Tips) and cover lightly with foil. Allow the duck to rest for 2 to 3 minutes minutes before carving (see Kitchen Tips).  
  14. While the duck is resting, line a fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth (see Kitchen Tips) and set it securely on top of a small heatproof bowl. Strain the excess fat from the duck saucepan into the bowl and let cool. The resulting, strained excess duck fat can be stored in the refrigerator, in a covered container, for use in another recipe.
  15. Return the duck-cooking pan back to the stovetop, heat over high heat, add the remaining stock to it with 1 teaspoon of the salt, and stir well, scraping up the little flavorful browned bits. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, until the the liquid is reduced in volume by about one-third. Remove from the heat and reserve.
  16. If using a tagine pot, remove the tagine from the oven and set on the stovetop, off any heat.
  17. Add the toasted almonds and olives to the tagine mixture—either in the tagine pot or in the reserved warm pot, and gently mix to incorporate.
  18. Divide the tagine evenly between 4 dinner plates. Slice the duck breasts on the bias  and arrange 1 sliced breast decoratively over the tagine on each plate. Pour the hot duck juices from the pan over the duck and garnish as desired with cilantro, extra toasted almonds and olives and serve immediately.  The photograph above shows the dish served family style, and you can do that, but it’s easier for guests if you slice the breasts and plate the meal individually.

Kitchen Tips

  1. You can find toasted or roasted nuts in most supermarkets, but if you can’t, or if you prefer to roast your own, try The Weiser Kitchen’s Roasted Nuts recipe.
  2. Always use a fresh plate for fully cooked meat, poultry or fish. NEVER place it back on the plate or board  that held it when it was raw, as the original plate holds uncooked juices that might carry foodborne bacteria. These microorganisms are killed during cooking, but placing the cooked food back into the uncooked juices can contaminate it and cause foodborne illness.
  3. Letting the meat rest after cooking allows it to stay juicy. The juices need time to settle down—cooking is a pretty frenetic process for a protein; it makes all those molecules bounce around—and you want the juices to stay inside the meat. Cut too soon and you’ll see juices running out all over your board or plate. It’s a pro trick to keep all meats moist and easy to do at home.
  4. Duck fat adds a wonderful flavor to all sorts of dishes and cooking a duck leaves you with lots of it, so by all means save it for another use. It will keep, covered, in the fridge for 3 to 5 days. But please strain it first; the tiny little bits of duckie that invariably fall into it during rendering get rancid fast as lighting. Strain them out in a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth and you’ll have lovely, clear duck fat to use as you like.

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